New Chargers AD Finds Home at Intersection of Athletics and Academia
Sheahon Zenger, a prominent and successful athletics administrator who is leading the exploration into the possibility of transitioning Charger athletics to Division I, says being raised in a family of educators inspired him to earn a Ph.D., in addition to pursuing his passions as an athlete and a coach.
November 22, 2019
By Jackie Hennessey, contributing writer
It was the first day of the fall semester, and Sheahon Zenger, Ph.D., the University of New Haven’s new director of athletics and recreation, was in a classroom, leading an honors literature seminar with University President Steven Kaplan, Ph.D.
They would spend the next five weeks exploring Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried with some of the University’s brightest students, discussing, Zenger says, "the ways in which our experiences good and bad are redefined through stories.
"The students were bright, so interactive," he continues. "It was such a neat way to start here."
Co-teaching a literature seminar might seem like an unusual place to find the University’s new athletic director, who previously was the AD at the University of Kansas, where he led one of the most accomplished Division I athletics programs in the country.
He says, though, he’s always had one foot on the academic side of a university and the other in athletics –often simultaneously. "That’s how I love it," he says.
"I’m the son of two farm kids who grew up to be teachers and then academics," Zenger says, noting his parents earned their doctorates in educational administration, taught at colleges in Kansas, and wrote eight books together about curriculum and instruction.
"You can imagine the dinner table conversations," he says. "When my wife and I were first married and having dinner with my parents, we’d run off like two junior high kids, just to get away from the discussion about curriculum design."
"I’ve enjoyed…. breaking the norm"
Growing up in Kansas, Zenger loved to read, and he also loved playing sports, especially football. At the age of nine, he told his father he was going to coach football or basketball. That was fine with his Dad, as long as he also got his Ph.D.
Zenger went on to play football for MidAmerica Nazarene University and Fort Hays State and earned his bachelor’s degree in English/secondary education from Kansas State University. While he earned his master’s in journalism and mass communications from Kansas State, he served as director of football operations under legendary coach Bill Snyder.
The field of education has always been an important part of his life. His father-in-law was a professor of education; his wife Pam, a teacher.
While later pursuing his Ph.D. in educational policy and leadership at the University of Kansas, he worked on special projects for the executive vice chancellor’s office, and co-founded American Football Quarterly, now American Football Monthly, a leading magazine about coaching football that is still going strong today.
"In my career I’ve made unorthodox decisions to go back and forth between the academic side of the university and the athletics side," he says. "I’ve enjoyed both and breaking the norm. I just love college – everything about it. I want to interact in four areas: athletics, academics, administration, and fundraising. Those are my four passions."
"This is where I want to be."
Zenger knew from his first few days interviewing at the University, "that this is where I wanted to be," he says. "President Kaplan, Provost Gaboury, the vice presidents, and deans were so excited about the institution and its trajectory as it continues to move upward. I knew that this would be a place – more than any other place I’ve been – where I could do all of the things I love to do."
The headline grabber from his hire, he knows, is that he is leading an exploration into a potential transition to Division I athletics. "We’re exploring it with vigor," he says. "I will follow the will of the President and the Board if that’s the direction they want to go after we’ve done our feasibility study."
He is quick to point out that "this is an incremental step," Zenger says. "We’re not looking to go into the Power Five. We would be at the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level."
Being a Division I school can benefit the University’s brand, and it could lead to more teams and increased roster sizes. "That brings in more revenue for the University," he says. "If we bring in another 100, 150, or 200 student-athletes, the math on that is pretty strong."
Exploring a move to Division I is just one of his immediate areas of focus. Recently, he held "a family meeting" of 350 athletes, coaches, and staff "to talk, like any family would, about our common goals, values, and philosophy," he says.
The athletes, he’s found, are genuine, authentic, hungry, and have a real work ethic. "They arrived early," he says. "They were bright eyed and totally engaged.
"In my career I’ve made unorthodox decisions to go back and forth between the academic side of the university and the athletics side," he says. "I’ve enjoyed both and breaking the norm. I just love college – everything about it. I want to interact in four areas: athletics, academics, administration, and fundraising. Those are my four passions." Sheahon Zenger, Ph.D.
"I’ve found our coaches to be as down to earth as any I’ve ever met," he adds. "They are coaches and educators. I’ve also had the pleasure of interacting with faculty already. I will be very much involved in that part of the University, too."
"I said to my friends in the Midwest, ‘you won’t believe what this is like here.’" He’s quickly become a fixture at soccer games and volleyball matches. He watched a women’s field hockey game in a torrential downpour. "I’m anxious to see the winter and spring sports," he adds.
He and his staff are putting a leadership training program in place for all student-athletes that will blend the program he has created over his 30-year athletic career with the Division of Student Affairs’Competency Learning Experience program. He met with Rebecca Johnson, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, and her team to talk about the program. He liked the parts of the Competency Learning Experience program on leadership and resilience so much that he is embedding them in the student-athlete leadership training he is planning to launch.
"I’m used to having a bigger staff, but that’s not necessary here because the institution is so integrated with what we do with student services, the academic support, facilities, and the budget," Zenger says. "One of the knocks of college athletics today is that you become your own silo, and I don’t see that happening here because we share so many resources and people and the same vision."
His overarching goal is to build upon the University’s history of success in athletics. "The goal is to win on the field, in the classrooms, and in our athletes’ personal lives, whether it be their co-curricular involvement, or as leaders on campus and in the community," he says.
He is hesitant to lay out specific goals because, he says, this is a time for observing and listening.
"To do qualitative research you have to talk with people and observe organizational behavior and sift and sort through your data," he says. "That leads you to what needs to come next. You can’t come in with a strategic plan. You don’t know the place. That happens over the next months as the staff and I ascertain what the opportunities and needs are."
"I don’t think the people of Connecticut brag enough…"
From his first days on campus, Zenger has been talking with alumni and University donors. "I’m learning from them what it is they really want," he says. "Many of them have a lot of history here, and they have ideas about what will work and how we can get there."
He likes this time of discovery – both at the University and in his own life. He and his wife have never lived in New England and it will be the first time they aren’t choosing a house for its school system, as their three children are in college, with their oldest pursuing a master’s degree.
"When you are in college coaching and administration, you can lose sight of your family and your children, and I dedicated myself to never doing that," he says. "I devoted every spare moment to their activities."
He does make time for reading, which is woven into the very fabric of his life. "I read across all genres," he says. "You can read books on leadership, but I’ve always learned more from novels, biographies, and historical fiction. The provide your life lessons."
These days, Sundays find him exploring the coastal towns of Connecticut. "I’ve instituted no (Interstate) 95 Sundays, taking the backroads from Milford to East Haven, Branford, Guilford, and Madison." He says he’s been struck by the beauty in these towns and the cultural vibrancy of New Haven.
"I’m looking at this area with fresh eyes, and I don’t think the people of Connecticut brag enough about all they have here," he says. "There’s so much, just as there is at the University of New Haven, academically and athletically, and it’s why I came here.
"I’ve seen what President Kaplan and his team have accomplished in the last 15 years," he continues. "I can only imagine what’s ahead, and I am excited to be part of it."